Why I Stay in the Church
Reinder Bruinsma | 16 September 2019 |
To be honest, I am at times rather frustrated with my church. Sometimes I feel the church is out of tune with the times and with the world in which we live. I get upset by the church’s bureaucratic procedures and by what I perceive as regrettable failures to deal decisively with important issues. I wish my church could finally accept the ordination of female pastors and deal with several other hot potatoes. And I often wonder why our leaders allow the fundamentalist fringe of the church to set so much of its agenda. And yes, I need a double or even triple portion of grace to interact with some people in the church.
But, in spite of these and other things, I am determined to stay with my church. It has been part of my life from my earliest childhood. The church has given structure to my life. Most (probably too much) of my social life is in the church. The church has been a good employer for me. I have had interesting and challenging assignments on several continents and have, in the process, visited some eighty countries. I have not become rich, but the church has provided me with a reasonable income and has, usually, been quite fair to me.
I realize, however, that these factors cannot be decisive when I ask myself the question: Do I want to stay in the Seventh-day Adventist Church? So many leave the church or are not sure whether they want to stay. What about me? A few years ago I wrote a book about this topic: Facing Doubt: A Book for Adventist Believers ‘on the Margins’. It was translated into six different languages and caused much discussion. The flood of reactions confirmed my suspicion that many struggle with the question whether they want to remain a church member. Let me share with you ten conclusions I have arrived at as I have pondered this matter—ten reasons why I want to stay in the church.
- I want to be a Christian. It all begins with this basic realization: I am a religious being. Of course, I am affected by the rampant secularism in today’s society. I hear the voices that say that God is dead, or that He is at best an absentee-landlord, or an impersonal spiritual dimension of the reality around us. But I have made a choice: I want to be a Christian. I believe in a God who is the Originator of everything, to Whom I am accountable. I believe He has met my most fundamental needs by entering this world in His Son Jesus Christ. I admire many facets of other world religions, but I strongly believe that the religion of Jesus Christ is unique. “There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
- I want to be a Bible-believing Christian. When I look at different denominations, I find that many profess a diluted version of Christianity. In many churches the Bible is no longer viewed as the authoritative Word of God. I would find it impossible to belong to a church that treats the Bible as merely a story book, which may contain edifying stories but does not necessarily reflect any transcendent reality. I want to believe in the God of the Bible, who is both infinite and near. I cannot be content with a belief in some impersonal spiritual Force, but am anxious to call upon a God who is both my Creator and my Father. I find little attraction in believing in a Christ who may have been a good man, but was not the divine Mediator who came to deal in a final way with my sin problem. I do not support the philosophy of a “plain reading” of the Bible, and do not believe that everything in the Bible is to be understood literally. I am sure that God’s Word must always be interpreted against the background of the time and the culture in which the authors of the Bible expressed, in their own human words, the eternal Word of God.
- I want to follow truth. I do not believe that the Adventist Church provides the only gateway into heaven. Nor do I believe that my church has the Truth in an absolute sense. We will always be searching for better, albeit human–and therefore imperfect—ways of expressing divine truth. I believe that in this respect the Seventh-day Adventist Church is ahead of other Christian communities. Together with many other Christians, Adventists embrace the basic fundamentals of the Christian faith. But, in addition, they have reached a fuller understanding of a number of specific “truths” that they must want to share with others. The perpetuity of God’s law, including the seventh-day Sabbath, the “Great-Controversy” world view and all this entails, the belief in the “soon” coming of Christ, and the integration of theology and lifestyle are some of the important aspects of biblical truth that I cherish.
- I want to be involved. One of the sad things in many denominations is that they seem to have lost their sense of mission. Many Christian churches are a dynamic, outgoing community, but are simply fighting for survival. Some seem to have given up entirely and have accepted that they are probably just a generation or even less away from extinction. By comparison, the Adventist Church is, in many ways, still a dynamic movement. Every day a few thousand new members join the church. As I write, the church has worldwide more than eighteen million members. Why does our church continue to grow so rapidly? Because it has retained a sense of mission. That is one of the things that attracts me in Adventism: It is going somewhere. I realize, however, that I should not let myself be carried away by an uncritical euphoria. The growth of the church is very uneven. In some Western countries, in particular among Caucasians, the church grows hardly, if at all. Around the world, many of those who enter the church do not remain. The retention rate of new members is quite alarming. Moreover, the church faces tremendous challenges in the world of Islam, as well as in the great urban centers all over the globe. Nonetheless, Adventism is on the move and it’s great to be part of it.
- I am proud to belong to a church that wants to serve the world. I know of the dangers of an “institutionalized” church. We must never forget that the church is, first and foremost, people and local congregations, evangelism and spiritual nurture. But the church is more. It has social and moral responsibilities viz-a-viz its own members and towards the world. It must work for justice, for the poor, the needy and the millions of refugees. It has much to offer in areas of health-care and health-education, and education in general. I am acutely aware of the challenges the church faces in many of its institutions–challenges in the areas of finances, human resources and philosophy. But having visited hundreds of Adventist schools, hospitals, and ADRA projects in many countries, those feelings of concerns are largely eclipsed by a sense of pride and gratitude. It is truly great to belong to a church which has integrated the activities of “heart” and “hand” on such a global scale.
- It’s great to belong to a church that connects theology with life style. If religion is to be meaningful, it must be relevant. The Adventist Church must face the ongoing challenge to ensure that its message is “present truth”–that it speaks to the real needs of people who live in the twenty-first century. Long before the word “holistic” became part of today’s vocabulary, Adventists developed their teaching of the fundamental unity of body, “soul” and mind. The discovery that care for the body has a religious dimension belongs to the genius of Adventism. However, we must, unfortunately, admit that the Adventist life-style principles have often been reduced to a list of do’s and don’ts that relates to just a segment of our lives. The church must continue to reiterate the basic underlying principles, and must challenge the members to apply these, responsibly but freely, in their own situation. I am sure that this holistic approach to religion and every-day life not only appeals to me, but, in particular, to many who belong to a younger generation.
- I thank God that the Adventist Church is increasingly Christ-centered. Not all trends in the church are positive. I see a growing fundamentalism in many parts of the church. I see how heresies like the Last Generation Theology are gaining strength. I see the relentless attempts to undermine the fundamental Christian doctrine of the Trinity. I regret the desire on the part of some leaders to define our twenty-eight fundamental beliefs in ever greater detail, so that “liberals” cannot exploit any loopholes to interpret these beliefs in a way that could be considered “unorthodox.” But, on the other hand, I am grateful for the definite trend I see in many places of focusing more clearly on Christ as the Center of our faith. Related to this is the gradual shift on the part of many from a strong emphasis on works as a means to salvation to a focus on grace as the foundation of our redemption. A study of Adventist history reveals that this shift did not happen overnight, and did not come about without significant tensions. And anyone who has analyzed present-day Adventism knows that even today there are too many pockets in the church where legalism and righteousness by works continue to exact their heavy spiritual toll. But, thank God indeed: as Adventism has matured, it has, in general, become more Christian.
- I thank God for a church that can change. Not all change is positive, but a total absence of change is the definitive recipe for becoming irrelevant and for the church’s inevitable demise. The world of the twenty-first century differs dramatically from life in the nineteenth or the mid-twentieth century. Fortunately, the church has seen change as time has gone by. Seventh-day Adventists are not like the Amish, who have stopped the clock and refuse to look at the calendar. We have changed in what we believe, as our doctrinal positions crystallized. We have changed in the way we are organized, as the small American Advent movement of the pioneers became a world church. We have changed in the way we “do” church. We have changed in the way we communicate our message. I am convinced that more change is needed, and I deeply regret that we see so much of stagnation, or even a rather widespread desire to go back to the “church of the pioneers” of the nineteenth century. But the fact that the church has been able to change in the past makes me hopeful that it can also do so in the future.
- I am happy to belong to a church with an inspiring past. As someone whose academic interests have to a large extent been in church history, I have read and thought a lot about the past. This has convinced me that, whatever some may think, the past cannot be re-enacted. Far too often the past is idealized by people who only have a vague knowledge of the actual facts. We must learn from history, and we can hardly expect to understand the present and plan for the future if we have no inkling of the past. Seventh-day Adventism has a fascinating history. It may contain pages of human weakness and even error, but the leading thread is one of vision and progress, and many leaders of the past are role models for those of us who are willing to invest our energy and creativity in building the kind of church that provides a true spiritual home for a future generation. That brings me to the last and final point why I want to stay in my church.
- I find hope in a church that has a message for the future. Seventh-day Adventism not only has a message about the past and for the present. Its message is especially focused on the future. I must admit that I am not very interested in a precise time-table of last-day events. But I am keenly interested in our eternal future. The Adventist understanding of history and the great truth of the Second Coming of Christ provide a framework that gives meaning and hope for the here and now and for what lies beyond my present life.
These are, briefly, ten reasons why I want to stay in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The church is far from perfect. But surveying my options, I must conclude that I have no viable alternative: However imperfect my church may be, this is the community where I belong!
Reinder Bruinsma lives in the Netherlands with his wife, Aafje. He has served the Adventist Church in various assignments in publishing, education and church administration on three continents, his last post before retiring as president of the Netherlands Union. He still maintains a busy schedule of preaching, teaching and writing. His latest book is I HAVE A FUTURE: CHRIST’S RESURRECTION AND MINE.